Let's get this out of the way now: the original NieR is a decent game. It had a great story and a lovely soundtrack all wrapped around competent but unexceptional gameplay. NieR: Automata wants to fix that impression, and after spending about ten hours with the game I'm willing to say it's off to a start. I'm still trying to decide if it's a better start or not.
Most of this is because of the gameplay. Going with Platinum was a good choice, as they have brought in a combat system that is absolutely fantastic. You can equip two weapons: one as a light attack and one as a heavy attack, each of which has a few unique moves. You can combo attacks easily, and the fighting quickly becomes a fast and fluid event. You can time dodges to counter attack, and you're backed up by a pod that can both use ranged attacks and deploy special skills. At the current time, I've been alternating between a gravity orb to draw enemies together and then a satisfying spear attack that impales them from below.
The fighting really hits the highest notes with the boss fights. NieR's bosses were already the highlight of that game, but NieR: Automata blows them out of the water. The first fight of the game is suddenly interrupted by a giant saw bursting into the room. Later I fought a robotic opera singer, a tank adorned with party gear, and a naked dude along with his naked brother. The last one is much cooler than it sounds, trust me. Each of these fights is an absolute joy, allowing me to use the combat system in new and exciting ways. At least until it decides it wants to be a totally different genre.
Yes, just like the original game, NeiR: Automata likes to dabble around in other genres. When it becomes a side-scroller this isn't so bad: it's the same gameplay just applied to 2D rather than 3D. On the other hand, I was bothered when the game suddenly became a SHMUP or a twin stick shooter. While this happened in the original NeiR, it was only interrupting an average RPG for some average segments. In Automata it's constantly interrupting an excellent RPG for average segments. I kind of get its the director's shtick, but I don't think this is something that has benefited the game much.
Automata takes place in an open world, allowing you to wander around and accept side quests. Unfortunately, wandering around the open world is a pain. Part of this is because of poor design: the world is confusing to navigate and doesn't really flow in any natural way. Trying to get from one location to another often means having to take several detours around barriers and holes to get to where I'm going. The other problem is that the map is almost shockingly useless. It barely displays anything relevant, and you can't even see the underground areas with it. As an aside, adding an NPC that basically goes "yeah the map is bad but everyone else deals with it so you have to as well" doesn't make your terrible map less terrible. It's just annoying. At the very least I eventually opened up the ability to quick travel, which makes getting around less of a chore.
The side quests you can partake in have been almost unanimously awful so far. They're the exact kind of filler side quest that you'd see in an Ubisoft open world game: "go here and kill X enemies" "go there and get Y items" "deliver this note between here and Z". It's really a shame to see this when recent open world games seem to be going out of their way to eliminate this kind of stuff. Even Ubisoft, with Watch Dogs 2, has made great efforts to remove boring filler quests. Automata's open world feels like it came right out of that 2013-2015 stretch when most open world games couldn't get it right.
The story isn't doing much for me either. So far, Automata hasn't grabbed me in the same way NieR did. The initial premise is grander, with aliens and robots invading the world and humans living on the moon and sending androids to fight their battles for them, but I honestly kind of preferred NieR's quieter "father saving daughter" initial story. Obviously, things aren't quite as they seem and Automata has already given me a couple plot twists that I liked, but it still just feels not as interesting. I know I have quite a bit to go with the story, so I'm not ready to make any judgment calls on it yet. For a while I kind of hated 2B as a character, as she seemed to exist to just be emotionless and boring, but she's been picking up a personality lately and so I've enjoyed playing as her more. The rest of the cast fairs much better, and I have to say I'm always happy to see 9S as he's a lot of fun.
I know this impression sounds very negative, but I'm still having some fun with the game. NieR: Automata is completely being carried by its absolutely fantastic combat right now, so I'm worried if it doesn't improve in other areas then once the combat gets old I'm going to lose my enjoyment in it. At the current time, too much of the game has felt like it came out a few years too late.
NieR :Automata is being reviewed on a PlayStation 4 using a copy provided by the publisher. The game will be available on PC on March 17th.